Reading History: The Crusades

Jonathon Riley-Smith explores the historiography of the Crusades.

Crusaders embark for the Levant

The subject of the Crusades is generally taken to cover both the history of the crusades themselves and the history of the states established by crusaders, particularly those on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This article concentrates on the first of these fields. Surveying the work of recent historians, it is clear that they are divided on three major issues. Were crusades to the East, launched to recover or defend Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the only true crusades or should we take into consideration all manifestations of the movement, including crusades in Spain, along the shores of the Baltic and against heretics and political enemies of the papacy in Europe? Was the crusading movement in steep decline in the thirteenth century? What is the most fruitful approach to crusading ideas and therefore to motivation?

The attitude of an historian to the first of these questions will affect his research, since those who rigidly maintain that the only valid crusading took place in the East are inclined to ignore, or at least undervalue, source material relating to crusading elsewhere. Of the general histories, Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades (3 volumes, Cambridge, 1951-4), still the most readable of the large-scale histories although now rather dated and marked by a bias in favour of the Greeks, and H.E. Mayer's The Crusades (Oxford, 1972), the most competent and up-to-date short history, confine themselves largely to the crusades to the East: Mayer, in fact, is the chief modern protagonist of the view that these were the only valid crusades. K.M. Setton's A History of the Crusades (2nd edition, 4 volumes at present, Madison, 1969- ), by far the most ambitious collaborative effort – Setton is the editor-in-chief – with some good individual contributions but so slow in appearing that much of it is dated before it is published, and two works of mine (J. Riley-Smith, What were the crusades? London, 1977 and – with L. Riley-Smith – The Crusades: Idea and Reality , London, 1981) favour the view that all crusades, wherever they were fought, should be taken into account. Most historians have ranged themselves on one side or the other in this matter and arguments will continue until the answers begin to be provided by those who study the crusades in Europe themselves. Unfortunately most of the work on European campaigns has been undertaken by scholars who are not primarily interested in crusading. For the Reconquista in Spain, one must still rely on J. Goni Gaztambide's compendious Historia de la Bula de la Cruzada en Espana (Vitoria, 1958) and M. Defourneaux's classic Les francais en Espagne aux XIe et XIIe siée cathare , (2 vols so far, Toulouse, 1970- ) and E. Griffe's Le Languedoc cathare au temps de la croisade 1209-1229 , (Paris, 1973) are by historians primarily interested in Catharism and Languedoc. On the other hand, in a book soon to be published by the Oxford University Press, N.J. Housley shows what can be done with the political crusades in Italy when one approaches them from this point of view. His argument that these were true crusades and were treated as such by contemporaries is bound to influence the controversy.

The orthodox opinion until recently was that the crusades were in decline in the thirteenth century. It was reinforced by an influential book by P.A. Throop, Criticism of the Crusade. A Study of Public, Opinion and Crusade Propaganda (Amsterdam, 1940), which seemed to show widespread and growing criticism of the movement and suited the predispositions of those whose eyes were fixed only on the East, because the indisputable failures of the thirteenth century, culminating in the evacuation of Palestine, must, in their view, have led to disillusionment and cynicism in Europe. Throop's influence can be discerned in E. Stickel's Der Fall von Akkon (Bern, 1975) and M. Purcell's Papal Crusading Policy 1244-1291 (Leideo, 1975), the latter author being convinced that the movement was becoming increasingly corrupt. But two developments are leading to a change of view. First, there is the dawning realisation that the picture of growing disillusionment does not square with the constant crusading, which could not have taken place without recruitment and the support of western governments. Throop, moreover, included among his critics those who merely wanted to improve the movement and those who were concerned only with certain aspects of it; once these are removed from the list, the number of fundamental critics is much less impressive. 'The subject is now being looked at again by a Cambridge research student, J.E. Siberry. Secondly, there has been a revival of interest in the history of crusading in the fourteenth century. Recent publications include L. Thier's Kreuzzugsbemuhungen unter Papst Clemens V, 1305-1314 (Werl, 1973) and J.N. Hillgarth's Ramon Lull and Lullism in fourteenth-century France (Oxford, 1971), which contains brilliant passages on the movement. And the unpublished work of three young historians, N.J. Housley, S. Schein and C.J. Tyerman, confirms a picture of continuing and widespread fervour, which would be incomprehensible if the movement had been in decline for over fifty years.

Scholars naturally approach a subject in the light of their own interests. Canon law studies have come much to the fore in recent years and legal historians have turned their attention to the crusades with important results. The best general work is still M. Villey's La croisade: Essai sur la formation d'une thégion maconnaise (Paris, 1953). He has recently written a brilliant and subtle book, attempting to reconcile social developments with ideas (The Three Orders. Feudal Society Imagined , Chicago, 1980), in which he has challenging things to say about the Peace of God movement and the crusades.

Apart from these issues, interesting work is being done, particularly on the 'nuts and bolts', the institutional history of crusading. Professor G. Constable is working on the financing of crusades in the twelfth century and a research student at Toronto, P.J. Cole, is studying the logistics of crusading. R. Somerville ('The Councils of Urban II: Decreta Claromontensia,' Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum , Supplementum 1, 1972) has greatly enlarged our knowledge of the crusade decrees of the Council of Clermont. E. Sivan (L'Islam et la croisade , Paris, 1968) has intelligently discussed Muslim reactions to the crusades and H. Roscher (Papst Innocenz III und die Kreuzzüder , Cologne, 1965). Spanish Military Orders have been considered by D.W. Lomax (La Orden de Santiago , Madrid, 1965) and J.F. O'Callaghan (The Spanish Military Order of Calatrava and its Affiliates , London, 1975).